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Milt Hinton: 1910-2000
Milt Hinton
'The Judge'
Bass, photographer

Born: June 23, 1910 in Vicksburg, Mississippi
Died: December 19, 2000 in Queens, New York

The Judge Was Dean of Jazz Bassists

Copyright © 2000 

The Scotsman, 2000


Milt Hinton was widely regarded as the dean of jazz bass players. He was known as The Judge, initially from the punch-line of an old joke he liked to tell, but later as a tribute to his genius in dealing with time. That applied not only to his time-keeping in a musical sense, but also to his sense of punctuality. Hinton was always first to arrive for a session or gig, and expected similar standards from his colleagues.

He was one the greatest bass players in jazz, with an unshakeable sense of time, a finely-tuned ear for the harmonic requirements of any given moment, technical mastery of his instrument, and a propulsive sense of swing in any setting. Perhaps his greatest asset of all was his willingness to play a self-effacing role as the fulcrum of any band he played in. He saw the bass as the literal base of the music, holding the whole structure together, and said that to be a great bass player, it was “necessary that you have enough humility to make somebody else sound good.”

The list of those made to sound good by Hinton is one of the longest imaginable, and covers a remarkable spread of 20th century popular music, from jazz masters like Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and Billie Holiday, through to pop icons like Bing Crosby, Paul Anka, Barbra Streisand and Paul McCartney.

In addition to a full career as a musician, Hinton was also a talented photographer, and his photographs of his follow musicians have left an invaluable record of life in the jazz community. Hinton specialised in backstage and off-stage snaps, showing a different side of the musician’s life. Some of his pictures have been published in his books Bass Line: The Stories and Photographs of Milt Hinton (1988) and Over Time: The Jazz Photographs of Milt Hinton (1991), both written in association with David Berger, a professor at Temple University who helped the bassist catalogue his massive photographic archive.

He had a camera in his hand on another historic occasion, but this time it was a small home movie camera. The footage he shot one morning in Harlem became the basis for the celebrated film documentary A Great Day in Harlem, commemorating the day when photographer Art Kane gathered almost everyone who was anyone on the New York jazz scene on the steps of a Harlem apartment building, and photographed the most famous jazz image of all.

Milton John Hinton was born in the south, but moved as a child to Chicago, where he was inspired to take up music by seeing a band accompanying a silent movie. He began with violin, but saw the bass as offering greater employment opportunities, and worked with many of the famous names of the late 1920 and 1930s, including Freddie Keppard, Jabbo Smith, Eddie South, Fate Marable and Zutty Singleton.

He made his recording debut in 1930 with Tiny Parham. In the decades ahead, he would become very familiar with the interior of a recording studio. No one knows for sure exactly how many records he played on, but estimates range from 600 to over 1,000.

He joined the Cab Calloway Orchestra as a temporary emergency replacement in 1936, and remained with the band for 15 years. He was not only the bedrock of Calloway’s hugely successful sound, but was also the most advanced bass soloist of the pre-Jimmy Blanton era, and was featured on Calloway’s recordings of “Pluckin' the Bass” in 1939 and “Ebony Silhouette” in 1941. Although a modern sounding player in his approach to harmony, he also refined the older “slap bass” technique to new levels.

He remained with Calloway when the singer broke up his orchestra and formed a small band after the war, until the final dissolution of the group in 1951. He began to pick up work in New York’s clubs as a freelance, then spent two months with Count Basie in early 1953, and seven months with Louis Armstrong’s sextet from that summer.

During his tenure with Calloway, Hinton had featured in numerous recording sessions for other artists, but the lucrative career of a studio musician was still not really open to black musicians in New York in the early 1950s. Hinton became one of the first to break that bar when comedian Jackie Gleason, an old friend, hired him for a session.

He moved from record sessions to radio and then television, and paved the way for black musicians to cash in on such work. Hinton said that the white musicians readily accepted him, but that television executives were still nervous about allowing a black musician to be seen with white players, especially in the south.

He became a staff musician at the CBS network, and spent two decades playing on countless record and broadcast sessions, from jazz and pop music to easy listening, film soundtracks and advertising jingles. Hinton treated all of these jobs with his usual consummate professionalism, and also toured with artists like Paul Anka and Pearl Bailey, as well as continuing to play in jazz settings at every opportunity.

As studio work began to disappear in the 1970s, he began to devote more time to teaching, but also to his own music. He became the unofficial bassist-in-residence at Michael’s Pub, a famous New York jazz and cabaret venue, and recorded a number of records under his own name, including the aptly named Old Man Time (1989), in which he was joined by stellar guests like Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Joe Williams and Cab Calloway, and Laughing At Life (1994).

He continued to tour into the mid-1990s. As one of jazz’s most revered elder statesmen, he received eight honorary doctorates, and was the recipient of a Eubie award (named in honour of the great pianist Eubie Blake) from the New York Chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, as well as a Living Treasure award from the Smithsonian Museum.

He is survived by his wife, Mona, a daughter, and grand-daughter.

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With 1 reader comment, posted April 28, 2001